Morrison Creek

A community conserving the circle of life – with help from a really weird creature

Janet Gemmell

One of the grand pleasures in BC is bearing witness to salmon returning to rivers and streams to spawn, as well as feasting on this local and delicious food source. On the coast in particular we can see pink and chum salmon that spawn closer to coastal waters as well as chinook, coho and sockeye on their way to spawn far inland.

Salmon are part of our community, our “people” – the streams are their home; they are the most visible (and stinky) inhabitants of our streams. Streams, though, are home to much more than just salmon: crayfish, freshwater clams, lamprey, trout, and insect larvae. Beyond the banks of the stream, over 137 species of trees, birds, and mammals are noted as being dependent on salmon. Salmon depend on those same trees and shrubs they fertilize, vegetation supports the insect life that forms fish food. A circle of life surrounds a stream.

Human activity has had an impact on salmon streams; in 1998 Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) published a map titled “Lost Streams of the Lower Fraser Valley,” and the number of streams now below pavement or relegated to ditches is a dire reminder of our tendency to take salmon streams for granted.

If we expect others to protect elephants and golden toads how can we squander our own globally important resource? We must celebrate and conserve those streams that still provide habitat for salmon and we must restore those that could provide habitat, in particular our urban streams that provide such an accessible opportunity to enjoy nature. It is difficult to avoid the slow death of streams that are prone to being diminished by development. Land ownership that protects streams and allows public access is crucial.

The Comox Valley, like other coastal communities, has numerous salmon streams in its midst, many with active streamkeeper groups who work to restore the productivity of these streams and advocate for their protection. But with salmon streams up and down the coast, how does any one particular stream warrant the attention and opportunity to have some of its environs left undeveloped to thrive as a small but complete ecosystem?

What’s needed is available land, willing partners, active agencies, knowledgeable people – and it helps to have a really weird creature.

“The Lamprey is not alone in Morrison Creek – the red-legged frog, Pacific great blue heron, Oregon side band snail, and coastal cutthroat trout, as well as beaver, otter, cougar, bear, and the occasional wolf and Roosevelt elk use the creek and forested headwaters area of wetlands and tributaries.”

This spring, the Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT) has embarked on a project to acquire 22.5 hectares of land in the Morrison Creek Headwaters that contain vital salmon habitat as well as forested tributaries and wetlands important to diverse wildlife. The land has seen a mill and railway operation in the 1920s, a market garden run by the Leung family in the late 1940s, and a woodlot developed by Mr. Beecher Linton in the 1990s. This land and the Linton Conservation Area, a wetland along Morrison Creek, were split from the rest of the Linton Property by construction of the Inland Island Highway. The Linton heirs, appreciating the natural value of the land and Beecher Linton’s history on it, generously agreed to give the CVLT the time and opportunity to purchase this piece.

Morrison Creek, whose springs and wetlands lie within the outer reaches of Cumberland and which flows through area C, ending at Puntledge Park near downtown Courtenay, sports such a weird creature: the Morrison Creek Lamprey. There are three species of lamprey native to the BC coast (out of over 40 species globally). Two, the Pacific lamprey and the river lamprey, spawn in fresh water, run out to live at sea, and return to spawn in their natal streams, like salmon. Both are parasitic in the marine phase.

The Western brook lamprey lives only in freshwater and is non-parasitic, except – and only – in Morrison Creek, where it likes to hedge its lifestyle bets. Upon arising from a five-to-seven year life as filter-feeding larvae in silty pond and creek bottoms, the Morrison Creek population of the Western brook lamprey – known as the Morrison Creek lamprey – metamorphoses into two distinct forms: a brownish, non-parasitic form and a silvery form which is toothy and parasitic, with an as-yet unknown diet.

Western Brook Lamprey Morrison Creek population– “silver form” (top) and non-silver, traditional looking Western Brook Lamprey (bottom) Photo credit: Joy Wade.

Western Brook Lamprey Morrison Creek population– “silver form” (top) and non-silver, traditional looking Western Brook Lamprey (bottom) Photo credit: Joy Wade.

It’s thanks to Dr. Richard Beamish of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, BC that we know about this creature. Because of its extremely limited range, the Morrison Creek lamprey is a red-listed (endangered) species under the Species At Risk Act. This odd creature draws the interest of those agencies willing to fund land purchases to conserve biodiversity.

The Lamprey is not alone in Morrison Creek – the red-legged frog, Pacific great blue heron, Oregon side band snail, and coastal cutthroat trout are blue-listed (threatened) species present in the Morrison Creek watershed. Beaver, otter, cougar, bear, and the occasional wolf and Roosevelt elk, among others, use the forested headwaters area of wetlands and tributaries situated between the Inland Island Highway and Bevan Road.

This area, known as the Morrison Creek Headwaters, has been traversed by the Project Watershed mapping crew, Morrison Creek Streamkeepers, Youth and Ecological Restoration Program, Comox Valley Nature Birdwatchers, and many nearby neighbours. Their observations and appreciation have kept interest in the area simmering, and thanks to CVLT and the Linton heirs, its value will be preserved, assuming the necessary funds can be raised.

The Linton Property is a gateway to the upstream lands of Morrison Creek, presently owned by Comox Timber, a division of Hancock Timber Resources. The section of Creek that runs through the Linton Property is exceptionally beautiful and accessible, and the successful purchase of this land will add a significant natural asset to the Valley.

Janet Gemmell is president of the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers, active stewards of Morrison Creek watershed for 20 years. FMI: Comox Valley Land Trust

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